Michael Dirda looks back at Book World’s roots in the Watergate era

I was in my late twenties when I first arrived at Book World in the spring of 1978. During the previous year, I had written half a dozen reviews for Bill Macpherson, who oversaw the department, and he asked me one day if I might as well. Interested in Become an assistant editor. He needed someone who could map literature, poetry, history, and everything purely non-political. It seemed to me that I fit the bill.

Partly because I had never worked for a newspaper before, everything about The Post struck me as a charm. Surprisingly noisy. In those days, every employee’s closet contained a telephone, a heavy-metal Rolodex watch and a silicate typewriter. The phones in the open newsroom rang almost continuously, and reporters wrote their stories on six-ply papers, instantly creating five copies of each page. One of those pages – called a “take” – will be passed up into a case and sent through pneumatic tubes to the composition chamber. There, Linotype machines convert these vertebrae into rows of metallic type.

In later years, installers — we called them printers — would use heavy cardboard flats to create mockups per page, a task strictly limited to members of the Printers Guild. An elegant red-haired Englishman named Brian Jacob has long been composing the pages of Book World while grumbling snippets of wisdom from old music hall songs, such as “If you want to tell the time, ask a cop.” As soon as MacPherson repositioned some camera-ready artwork himself, the foreman’s voice rang almost immediately over the loudspeaker: “Tools down.” All work stopped on the ground. A timid Bill was never warned not to do it again.

With the exception of Carl Bernstein, most of the people who appeared in “All the President’s Men” and “The Post” were still in the paper. Mrs. Graham – as Catherine Graham was always called – inspired awe, for being the most aristocratic person I have ever met; Ben Bradley was passionate and scandalous. The editorial pages were taken care of by the clever Meg Greenfield. If you happen to come across Herblock down the aisle, he will always ask you what you think of his latest political cartoon. After Don Graham took over the newspaper’s publisher, he practiced “management by wandering” on a regular basis and, surprisingly, could have greeted any of his several hundred employees by name. Moreover, whenever you write something particularly good, you will find a free note from Don in your mailbox.

Each week, a diverse staff—the department’s editor-in-chief and four assistant editors—presented five daily style reviews and filled 16 pages of Sunday’s “tab,” an independent section of the magazine. Besides individual reviews and reports (for children’s books, puzzles, science fiction, and fantasy), each edition required a fair amount of internal writing: quick titles and paragraph descriptions for half a dozen titles in New in Paperback and New in Hardcover, a literature test called a Book Bag, and lists of books Bestsellers in hardcover and paperback compiled from sales figures reported by local bookstores.

As long ago as September, I noticed the works of several French thinkers – Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the like – occasionally appearing on the list. It turns out that a Francophile news assistant named Joe, tasked with putting together the list, decided their work should be a bestseller, and he made sure of it. By the way, Joe was a colorful character like Brian. If you summon him to your office, he will stand up very intently, stroke his chest with his fist in a Roman salute and say, “Yes, my lord.”

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I used to make up several Book Bag questions, but the one I remember now was built around the close resemblance in the name of two contemporaries, Beatrix Potter, creator of “Peter Rabbit” and Beatrice Potter, the Fabian socialist who, after her marriage, became Beatrice Webb. On the Monday morning after this question came up, I was called into Richard Harwood’s office, the rough Assistant Managing Editor who oversaw several departments including Book World. Harwood, a former Marine, “left to die on Iwo Jima” – as he was fondly referred to – complained that the test had become too difficult and too vague. “Dirda, I want questions like ‘Mary has a little,’ followed by a void people can fill.” I nodded in acquiescence, but didn’t make the questions any easier.

In those days, every major publisher sent us proofs and revision copies, which were duly deferred by the month of publication in the writers’ room. Each afternoon, after the day’s mail was delivered, the floor would be covered ankle-deep in small padded envelopes and boxes. We stomped on them regularly without a second thought. Moreover, any “good art” book may be subject to distortion if we need an illustration to review it. As something of a book lover, I find cutting images out of books shocking, but newspaper work strengthens even the most sensitive soul. When our Artistic Director, Kunio Francis Tanabe, went on vacation I was the one who used the X-ACTO knife.

Every Monday, Book World staff would gather to bring up the contents of the next issue, argue about what should happen in the front, and, after discussing potential books for review, lament that publishing wasn’t what it used to be. Upon appointment, we either phoned or — yes, the kids — wrote actual letters to potential reviewers. Thriller writer Ross Thomas was always answering his phone in episode two and switching to a clean copy. Dependable, the perfect professional. But for the sake of brilliance, we might ask Stephen King to write about Robert Ludlum (which he did in a devastating evisceration), or arrange a piece of Salman Rushdie when he was in Hiding from an Islamic fatwa, or presenting a conversation between Joseph Heller and Mel Brooks in which they talked about their childhood reading. But we also tried a new promising book. In 1981, I set the song “Oh!” Mary Robson. To a Post intern named David Remnick, now the New Yorker editor.

In those years after Watergate, I was regularly looking for reviewers among the older writers I admired. I once spent 45 minutes talking with novelist Christopher Isherwood about WH Auden, cajoled Sir Harold Acton—dedicated to Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall—reviewing books on the Brideshead generation, and ordered pieces from Malcolm Cowley and Morley Callaghan, who were both expats in Paris. During the 1920s, Robert Benn persuaded Warren to send us a poem.

Among my contemporaries, it commissioned as much as they could afford from composer Ned Ruhrm, musician Guy Davenport, classicist Bernard Knox, and novelists Gilbert Sorrentino, Robertson Davis and Angela Carter. I remember Angela—we became friends over the phone—almost ironically in her review of Gabriel García Márquez’s much-praised “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Roald Dahl, who somehow resisted my sweet words, mentioned that his favorite American writer was Ed McBain, the creator of police procedures at Precinct 87. Since we grew up in the same town, I’ve been staying with Toni Morrison and have been able to talk her sweetly into a piece about Jean Tomer.

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Perhaps the accomplishment I am most proud of during those early years at Book World was the monthly sci-fi and fantasy column, which only began after Joanna Ross, an old friend and author of the classic feminist book The Female Man, provided me with a major tutelage. Soon, no other mainstream newspaper can match our coverage of Fantastica. Legendary Theodore Sturgeon reviewed the young Thai writer SB Somto. We played “Poem on the Death of Philip K. Dick” by the great writer Thomas M. Desch. George RR Martin wrote in his Book World long before “A Game of Thrones” and Ursula K. Le Guin and John Crowley became frequent, favorite reviewers of anything. Best of all, when Jane Wolfe completed The Book of the New Sun, John Clout’s final volume novel, The King’s Castle, deserved and got front page.

Washington has always been a wonderful book city. For a big weekend spread, I visited David Streetfield — then a non-specialist publishing reporter for Book World, now a business reporter for the New York Times — and briefly described 35 second-hand bookshops in the greater metro area. One memorable evening, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan hosted a party on the hill where I found myself arguing about Ezra Pound with novelist Bernard Malamud and CIA Director James Jesus Angleton. After that, my wife and I lived in the same apartment building as Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist Mary McGrory. Once, as I was on our way to the laundry room with a basket of soiled clothes, the elevator opened and there stood Teddy Kennedy and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, both on their way to Mary’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.

Book World has always been trying new ways to keep the section active. For example, we ran half a dozen pieces to trace how the book was made: In one, Leo and Diane Dillon revealed the secrets of the dust jacket illustration. We even dedicated entire special issues to off-track topics, including home maintenance. I’ve already reviewed seven or eight plumbing repair manuals. Back in the 1980s, another theme theme focused on comics and included pieces about the Hernandez Brothers and Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”

Relentlessly, every year, our seasonal specials, geared towards children’s books, winter holidays, and holiday reading, demand new crowd-pleasing features.. For one summer reading issue, I asked John Sutherland — an expert in folk literature — for an annotated list of the 20 worst or bestselling books that became bestsellers of the 20th century. Sutherland wrote: “At number 19, I nominated the most vulgar novel I’ve ever read, Judith Krantz’s 1991 bestselling novel, Dazzle. I was thrilled to see this. My personal review of that novel began: I read ‘Dazzle’ in one sitting.” I had to. I was afraid I could never face picking it up again.”

As a children’s book editor, I began to ask many writers to remember their childhood readings, for example, Argentina (Alberto Manguel), India (Shashi Tharoor) and the Soviet Union (Cathy Young). Perhaps the most popular feature of Book World, ‘Rediscovery’, looked at books undeservedly neglected and was chiefly the work of Noel Perrin (who collected his essays in The Reader’s Delight). Much later, Book World editor Mary Arana conducted a fascinating series of author interviews, eventually published as “Life of Writing,” while Library of Congress poets—Rita Dove, Robert Haas, and Robert Pinsky—written infectiously about their favorite poems in The poet’s choice.

Sigh, my editor told me I should really stop. However, this was the deepest dive into the early history of Book World and a lot had to be left out (some scandalous – those were the days!). Moreover, I have no doubt that my former colleagues – of whom I was able to mention only a few – tell different and better stories. The fact remains that in 2009 the Sunday tab stopped publishing and the book’s coverage was split between Style and Outlook, where it remains until now. But with this issue of Book World, its editors—John Williams, Stephanie Merry, Stephen Livingston, Nora Krug and Jacob Brogan—helped by critic Ron Charles and bureau director Becky Melwan relaunch an independent section on Sunday. They even let me stay part of the fun. Come join us.

Michael Derda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Book World columnist, and author of a memoir “open bookEdgar Award Winneron Conan DoyleAnd five groups of articles:%s . readobligated pleasebook by bookClassics for fun” And the “browsing. “

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